Khin Ohn Mar – a headache for ASEAN

Korea Herald, South Korea

Burma has become a major stumbling block for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and to a lesser extent, Asia, said Khin Ohmar, the secretary for the Foreign Affairs Committee for the political coalition group Forum for Democracy in Burma.

“There is no way ASEAN will be able to move forward to achieve economic development and prosperity for the ASEAN community as a whole by 2015.”

Ohmar wears several hats: In addition to her role with the Forum for Democracy, she is the chairperson for the Network for Democracy and Development, and the vice chair for the Burmese Women’s Union.

During her recent two-day stay in Seoul she explained the current situation in Burma.

“ASEAN has traditional policies of non-interference and constructive engagement. However, Burma will never be able to resolve its issues and will become more problematic for the whole region,” she said.

The spillover effects are worse than the problems and challenges Burma faces today.

“Right now, the democratization process of the region is fragile but if there is democratic change in Burma, then there is definitely another democratic ally within ASEAN,” Ohmar said.

Kicking Burma out of ASEAN is not an option, she pointed out. Instead, she would like to see ASEAN demonstrate their new leadership by going beyond their traditional dealings in the region vis-a-vis Burma. She noted that, in spite of ASEAN’s non-interference policy, they are already involved through business dealings, natural resource extraction and their harsh condemnation of the Burmese junta during the trial of Nobel Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Suu Kyi was recently convicted for sheltering an American man who swam to her lakeside home. She was found guilty and ordered to spend 18 months under house arrest which will keep her far removed from the political scene during crucial elections scheduled for 2010.

“Since its founding 40 years ago, ASEAN now has a charter so there are certain rules that member states must respect, even though there is no such clause that forces them to comply,” Ohmar said.

For ASEAN to show their legitimacy on the international scene, Ohmar believes that the two most powerful nations on the block – Indonesia and Thailand – need to step up and prove to the world that what ASEAN has ratified is a “living document.”

When the trial of Suu Kyi broke, ASEAN quickly called for the democratization of Burma, the release of Suu Kyi and all political prisoners, and demanded that the regime make the election legitimate.

“The all-inclusive political process ASEAN demanded is something we’ve been calling for,” she said. “Also, we want them to review the 2008 Constitution that’s been forcibly adopted by the regime whose only goal is to entrench military rule in Burma forever.”

Ohmar would like to see the situation in Burma made part of the official agenda at next month’s 15th ASEAN Summit in Hua Hin, Thailand.

“We already have political support from some ASEAN parliamentarians who are calling for the suspension of Burma’s membership if the regime doesn’t comply with their appeal,” she said.

Ohmar predicted that sanctions would never be enforced by ASEAN, mostly because of China and India’s involvement in Burma’s energy-rich sector.

Instead, her group as a democratic movement is recommending to the United Nations and international governments that a national reconciliation proposal be offered to Burma’s regime but she stands firm that there would have to be a certain acknowledgment before any meeting could occur.

That would include the release of Suu Kyi and other political prisoners and would involve talks with various ethnic groups that currently oppose the junta.

Ohmar explained that the current proposal by the regime is not the answer because it only offers the pretense of democracy, instead of giving true democracy to the people. It does not address the many problems currently plaguing the nation, including unemployment, AIDS, internally-displaced people, migrants and refugees.

The way the regime’s “democracy” will work is it will create its own opposition run by businesspeople who have received privileges in the past by the junta, Ohmar elaborated.

“The constitution is not amendable without over 70 percent of the vote, so you have 25 percent from the military, then you have a certain percentage who are former military in civilian uniform taking a seat and then some of these business cronies … It’s an illusion of democracy.”

On the international front, Ohmar would like to see Korea take a more active role.

Binding resolution

“We want the Security Council to impose an arms embargo and to establish a commission against war crimes and crimes against humanity,” she said. “These are the two actions we want from the Security Council and we want Korea to support that.”

Ohmar added that she would like to see “Korea take a stand like other countries are doing. So far Korea has been politically quiet and that silence has to be broken.”

There is also a plan from some of the world’s parliamentarians to punish Burma through financial sanctions.

“The international community needs to step up their aggressive diplomatic engagement by continuing to knock the regime hard and keep forcing them to comply and if they don’t, then this regime needs a timeline,” she said. “They have played the international community with their own timeline for too long.”

She noted, every year the U.N. passes at least two resolutions concerning Burma “and yet nothing happens.”

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